To my mind, there is a very distinct difference between a filmmaker and someone who has managed to make a film. One is a natural gift, and the other is a result of sheer force of will. I respect the hard work and determination it takes to wrestle anything up onto the screen, but I happily acknowledge that some people are just born with a voice that asserts itself when they are behind the camera. That’s when they really come to life.
I’m trying to see a variety of titles here at the festival, not just focusing on the big names. Sure, we’ll have reviews of “The Tree Of Life” and “Melancholia” right after they screen, no doubt about it. I’m here to be part of those conversations and to give you the very first account of the highest-profile movies playing at this, the highest-profile film festival in the world. But while I’m here, I should try to take a chance at least once a day. After all, even if I don’t know anything about a movie I’m walking into, it is playing at Cannes, so that’s sort of an implied endorsement, right?
I’ve seen four of the films from the Un Certain Regard program at the festival, two competition titles, and the out of competition films “Midnight In Paris” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” Not bad. If I had to guess about the programming directive behind Un Certain Regard based only on what I’ve seen, my guess would be that it’s all about films with a strong emphasis on voice.
One of the reasons I spend so much time watching international cinema is because I love getting a window into someone else’s perspective, someone else’s view of this world we ostensibly share. With South or Central American films, I feel like my marriage of the last nine years gives me a little additional insight into that part of the world, and I’m always interested in seeing how their films deal with the hard realities of that part of the world. With “Trabalhar Cansa,” directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra mix imagery and mood that seems appropriate for a horror film with the painful economic and social realities that keep modern Brazil so divided, and I wanted to like the film more than I did. There are things to admire about it, but the filmmakers never quite seem to find a way to bring all of their interests and desires together successfully.
Helena and Otavio are a married couple who teeter somewhere between making their dreams come true and total economic collapse. Helena wants to open a neighborhood grocery store and has been carefully working towards her dream for some time. Just as she finds the perfect storefront and begins making her final preparations, Otavio loses his job. They’ve just hired a new maid, Paula, to take care of the kids and the house, and they’re spending money like mad to get the store up and running, and Otavio finds himself grappling with the apocalyptic job market in Brazil, facing hundreds of opponents for every potential job.
As Helena hires staff and prepares to open the market, there are small, disturbing signs that something awful may have happened there in the past, and these little omens begin to make her question her dream. Meanwhile, Otavio continues to free fall, feeling more and more emasculated by his own failures to provide for his family. Paula, determined to stick it out at the job while working her way towards a registered job somewhere else, witnesses this family’s slow rot, not sure if she wants to be part of a system that can push people to this place.
Individual moments and ideas and even performances in “Trabalhar Cansa” worked for me, and there are some wonderfully effective sequences. No one’s ever gotten quite as much tension out of a mechanical dancing Santa Claus as these two do, and I like the way the film resolutely refuses to explain certain things, including what can only be described as a monster that appears late in the game. But it always feels like a film of parts and pieces, and even as a team, Rojas and Dutra only ever manage a sort of workman-like rough hewn functionality to the film. It works, but it doesn’t quite live and breathe. I was always aware of all the effort going into what I was watching, and it never became a coherent, living movie. I’d be very interested in more work from this team, though. There is promise here, even if it doesn’t quite connect.
On the other hand, “Miss Bala” comes roaring off the screen, alive and electric and shot through with an almost-overwhelming confidence. Director Gerardo Naranjo is a remarkable talent who has grafted beauty pageants with the narcotrafico wars of Mexico to create a film that is spellbinding, a visual wonder and a tremendous surprise, a piercing look at powerlessness in all its forms.
I am not familiar with Naranjo’s earlier films, but it’s obvious he lives and breathes cinema. From the opening moments of “Miss Bala,” he draws you in. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is a young woman living in the violent border town of Baja, determined to find a way out. She sees the Miss Baja contest as a way of doing that, and despite her father’s warnings, she leaves home one morning to meet a friend and to try and make it into the pageant. In the opening scenes, Naranjo keeps Sigman’s face off-camera, not making a big deal out of it, but always keeping her just at the edge of frame or keeping her back to us, or using a door frame to block our view. It’s not until the main title comes up and her friend calls her name from off-screen that Laura turns to us, a smile lighting up her face. So much of this film is about watching that smile recede further and further as bad luck and circumstance pile up on this poor girl that in hindsight, the sunshine glimpsed in that first flash of joy is just heartbreaking.
Laura and her best friend go to a dance club after they manage to secure spots in the pageant, and while they’re there, a group of armed men take over the club, determined to kill the DEA agents celebrating inside. Laura witnesses the shooters and loses her friend in the chaos, and that combination of ill fortune leads her down a very dark rabbit hole for the rest of the movie. She wants to find her friend, and this selfless act of hers brings her right into the crosshairs of The Star, the group who attacked the club. Laura’s journey becomes a glimpse into the way the drug wars are being waged on our borders, and using her as a window into this allows Naranjo to also comment on the powerlessness of being a woman in certain cultures as well as the frustration of trying to stamp out an industry that isn’t going anywhere. Through it all, Sigman is a remarkable central figure, each new decision complicating her life further. She continues to put others ahead of herself, anything to keep her family out of harm’s way, and once she realizes how completely she’s been compromised, once she starts scrambling for her own safety, it may be too late.
As a director, you can make a choice to shoot your film in a way that is participatory or a way that is observational, and Naranjo wisely makes this a film that draws you in, that puts you in Laura’s shoes, shooting much of the film from just over her shoulder, keeping her perspective front and center. We aren’t just watching what happens to her, we’re living through it with her, and the way the film accelerates makes Naranjo feel like an old pro. He ratchets up tension expertly, and every now and then, the film erupts into pure chaos. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that starts with Laura just driving a car through a street in Baja, turning the wrong corner, and ending up in the middle of a terrifying gun battle that just keeps cranking it up further and further, never cutting, never giving us a release or a break, and it seems to me to be an indication of just how exciting a talent Naranjo is.
He’s got a great eye, but he also elicits wonderful work from his whole cast. Sigman is one of those actors who is just eminently watchable, her huge brown eyes constantly brimming with unspoken emotion. Noe Hernandez plays Lino, the leader of The Star, and he gives this disturbing, despicable performance that avoids all the easy cliche of playing a “bad guy.” Much of the film hinges on the relationship that develops between the two of them, and there are so many subtle grace notes to their work that I can’t even fully sum up why I was impressed. It’s the little things, the details that sell the idea that these are real lives we’re watching, not something staged or calculated. As controlled as the filmmaking is, there’s still a sense of barely contained chaos pushing in at the edge of things that made “Miss Bala” one of the most tense film experiences I’ve had in a while.
And while it may not be news to you as a viewer that there is a drug war brewing on the borders of America and Mexico, I can’t think of any other film that plunges you into the dark heart of the conflict the way this one does, or that does such a great job of personalizing the toll it takes on the innocent. Although I was half kidding when I first discussed this with people, I think the film also uses the pageant setting as a way of underlining just how rotten the choices for many women are, and how this sort of institutionalized victimization is not just restricted to the mean streets. “Miss Bala” is one of the highlights of the festival so far for me, and I hope Fox International brings it to the US at some point. It’s a powerful experience, and Naranjo is, without a doubt, a born filmmaker.
Lots more reviews ahead today, even as dark clouds brew over the Croisette for the second day running. Hope you’re enjoying the coverage so far, because I’m having a blast being here and bringing it to you.